In a long, contentious divorce, you may reach a point where you begin to wonder if your legal team is really doing what you hired them to do. Especially when things don’t seem to be going well, you may find yourself doubting whether your attorney is worth all the checks you’re writing. Is it time to find someone new?
Don’t do anything hasty. Starting over with a new lawyer can be time-consuming and hugely expensive. Much of the money you spent on the first one will have been wasted, and a new lawyer will have to start from scratch to get familiar with your case.
Either way, there’s plenty at stake. So, how do you know if you need to fire your lawyer?
If you’re working through that decision, these five questions are a good place to start:
1. Does your attorney fail to answer your questions or return your calls, within reason?
You need to have reasonable expectations about communication with your lawyer. She won’t answer personally every time you call, or respond within the hour to your every question. Keep in mind that divorce attorneys spend a lot of time in court, and that you will have to manage your expectations appropriately.
That said, your lawyer should not be unresponsive, and you should not feel as though he is deliberately ignoring you. Within reasonable limits, your questions should be answered in timely way.
2. Do you feel intimidated – or even bullied – by your attorney?
Litigators don’t succeed in their work without being able to intimidate or outdo an opponent in court. You do want your attorney to be an impressive courtroom presence: knowledgeable, experienced and commanding respect. However, you do not want your attorney to talk down to you.
If you aren’t being taken seriously, or if your attorney is belittling or even verbally abusive to you (it happens!), it may be time to start looking for someone new.
3. Do you leave your lawyer’s office feeling worse than when you went in?
Granted, this can also be an issue of expectations, and no divorce attorney should promise you the moon –because you’re just not likely to get everything you ask for in a settlement. Negotiation means compromise.
With that in mind, if you sense that your attorney has no ideas or isn’t making a proper effort on your behalf, it’s no wonder you’re leaving her office feeling distinctly hopeless. You need to be confident that your case is in competent, resourceful hands.
4. Does your attorney lack expertise in a critical aspect of your case?
Today’s financially complex divorces have no end of complicating factors. What are the biggest hurdles in your case? Does your divorce involve dual citizenship? Are you trying to contest your prenup? Are there special custody considerations or unusual assets to consider? Whatever your special circumstances, you don’t want to find out, after you’ve paid a hefty retainer, that your attorney can’t handle them.
5. Is your attorney unwilling to work with other members of your divorce team?
Your divorce lawyer is the pivotal member of your divorce team, and should be knowledgeable about all the legal subtleties of your case. But, you can’t expect him to also be fluent in its financial subtleties and complexities. Excellent divorce attorneys welcome and encourage participation from experts in related fields.
If your attorney will not collaborate with your divorce financial advisor or other specialists, that can be a problem.
If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, you might also need to say “yes” to a finding a new lawyer. What can you do to make sure you get a better fit next time?
- Make expectations about communication clear from the outset. Find out what’s realistic, and state your preferences up front. For example, while you understand you won’t always be able to reach your attorney on the phone, you expect emails to be answered within 24 hours.
- Remember that your attorney works for you, and not the other way around. Have a working knowledge of divorce basics so that your questions are well-informed, but don’t tolerate disrespect or belittlement.
- During your initial interview with prospective attorneys, assess their resourcefulness and experience. Ask them to suggest a plan of action for you. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of your case, and emphasize that you want to understand best- and worst-case scenarios equally. Ask what advice this attorney would be giving your husband, if it were him and not you conducting the interview.
- Know what makes your divorce particularly challenging, and make sure from the outset that your attorney has successfully handled similar cases.
- Ask your prospective attorney directly what the dynamics of the professional divorce team relationship will be. This conveys your expectation that you will have a team, not just a lawyer, handling your case. You should also ask your divorce financial advisor for recommendations of attorneys, and vice versa. You will find very effective relationships that will work in your favor.
The best way to avoid having to change your law firm midstream is to choose your divorce attorney very carefully before you begin. Do extensive research with these points in mind, and interview several before you choose.
When all’s said and done, it’s not important to love your lawyer, but it is extremely important that she be a good fit for your case. As with many aspects of divorce, this is a time to Think Financially, Not Emotionally®. Divorce is about securing your financial future, and you get one shot at it. It’s absolutely worth the time and effort to find the best possible legal representation.
Jeffrey Landers is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.